‘I’ve seen hell, and it is real’ Ukrainian Pentecostals in the American Midwest and one man’s twisted path to Jesus
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of members of the Pentecostal church (most of them from Ukraine) fled to the US to live and preach and establish numerous communities all over the country, from California to North Carolina. In Sedalia, Missouri, Russian-speaking Pentecostals constitute as much as 15 percent of the local population, making it perhaps the most Slavic town in America. Aleksandr Gorbachev, a former editor-in-chief of the Russian magazine Afisha, currently lives nearby in Columbia. He recently visited Sedalia to learn more about why the Midwest attracts pious Russians, tracing one man’s road from Soviet prison to provincial America.
Ruzam Tadzhibayev had his first meeting with God when he was 18 years old.
At the time he was living with his fiancée in Termez, a small ancient city in the deep south of Soviet Uzbekistan, known for being conquered by Alexander the Great and destroyed by the troops of Genghis Khan. It was August 1966 and it was one of those unbearably hot days when you could bury an egg in the sand, return half an hour later and find it hard-boiled. For people who lived in Termez, the climate was both a curse and a gift. It was precisely because of this excruciating weather that they got a 60 percent bonus in their official salaries each month: the state’s way of acknowledging that human beings shouldn’t really be working in such conditions.
Ruzam Tadzhibayev was a willing laborer. Several months before, he returned to Termez after serving eighteen months in a juvenile prison for getting into a fight with a cop in a club. Fortunately, his prospective father-in-law was a chief engineer at a local freight company, and there was a lot of construction going on around the city; truck drivers were needed. After getting his license, Tadzhibayev joined that workforce, eventually getting to drive a brand new ZIL truck, thanks to his family connection. However, the vehicle had just one small flaw: the starter didn’t always work properly.
It was Friday night, and Tadzhibayev was on the night shift, when the truck’s engine suddenly stalled in the middle of an open railway crossing. He hit the starter. Nothing happened. Tadzhibayev bent down to investigate, and then he heard a screech and saw a blinding light, and then only darkness.
The train struck his truck at full speed, dragging it 345 feet along the tracks until stopping in the middle of a cotton field. The car was so damaged that it had to be cut away from a locomotive by a railway crane. They never thought the driver could be inside: of course he ran away when he saw the train coming, what else could he have done? So the wreckage was taken to a garage and left until Monday. Only when the junkyard started started cutting up the truck, did they notice a crumpled body lying in between the front seats. Of course, they took it for a corpse. How could he have been alive after all this?
Later that night, the surgeon arrived to perform his evening autopsies at the Termez city morgue, which in the 1960s was just a cold, sunless basement. He noticed that one body had a distinctively different color than the others. He took off his gloves and checked the pulse. Then he picked up the phone, called his boss who also happened to be the mother of Tadzhibayev’s fiancée, and said: “Your son-in-law is still alive. Take him away from here.”
When Tadzhibayev finally regained consciousness, the headaches came. They were so severe that he couldn’t even speak properly. He barely knew who or where he was. His family had to take him several thousand miles up north, to Leningrad, where the doctors opened up his head and performed an unprecedented surgery. When it was over and Tadzhibayev finally felt alright, they showed him a glass half full with clotted blood that had been scrubbed from the surface of his brain.
Only then was Tadzhibayev finally able to recount what he’d seen “on the other side.” A man in white showed up, no wings attached. He led Tadzhibayev’s spirit up to the sky. He saw a beautiful garden with people walking around. Then the man took him down below, where it was so hot that everything was burning and boiling and melting, people included, and there were huge worms, and there was a disgusting smell.
“Have you seen it?” the man asked.
“Yes, I have,” Tadzhibayev replied.
“If you serve God, you will end up in the garden. If you don’t, you will end up here. Understood?”
“Yes,” Tadzhibayev replied.
“Now go back and tell everybody.”
It took Tadzhibayev 22 years, three more prison terms, three more wives, and countless adventures to understand what his companion really meant.
Even before the vision, no one could call Tadzhibayev an ungodly man. He was a Muslim, and if not the most devoted, at least one of the most educated in his mosque. Because of his upbringing, he even knew how to read the Koran.
Tadzhibayev was born in 1948 in the city of Frunze in the Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan. His mother was a barmaid—a job that in the Soviet Union provided a lot of opportunities for making money. His father was a cook. However, Tadzhibayev didn’t really know them until his teenage years. As soon as his mother finished breastfeeding him, his grandfather took him away from the family. Both his grandfather and father were Uyghurs, and it was in their tradition for the first grandson to go live with his grandparents. So they took a train to Xinjiang, a large province in the northwestern part of China.
Uyghurs are a Turkic tribe that settled in the area in the 9th century, converted to Islam by the 16th century, and now had an autonomous region within the freshly proclaimed People’s Republic of China (the region still exists today). Thanks to its convenient location—just next to the USSR’s Central Asian republics—it was a place of considerable ethnic diversity. In the city where Tadzhibayev lived with his grandfather, there was a street populated by Dutov Cossacks who fled Russia after losing to Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, and a street populated by Kazakhs who fled during the Collectivization.
In Xinjiang, Uyghurs were the privileged ones. At least it felt that way to Tadzhibayev, because his grandfather was rich and had a lot of land and cattle. Tadzhibayev lived in a huge house with several dozen bedrooms. Each morning servants would bring him a bowl of water to wash and a bowl of milk to drink. Then they would dress him up and walk him to Islamic school—a madrasah (hence his knowledge of Koran). For more than 10 years, he lived like a prince. And then the Chinese came.
Tadzhibayev uses the term “the Red Guard,” but in 1961, when the incident reportedly happened, the Cultural Revolution hadn’t yet begun. However, it is known that Mao’s government was suppressing Uyghurs even before that. According to Tadzhibayev, the Communist troops brought all the rich people to the town’s main square and shot them, while others plundered their houses. Tadzhibayev and several others decided to flee. They took 400 cows and hid among the herd to escape the shots fired by Chinese soldiers. They walked dozens of miles through the prairie, eventually arriving in a town in neighboring Kazakhstan, where their herd was taken away from them by the Soviets (of course, nobody cared to pay for the cows). Then they were escorted to another city and put in a school gym, where they lived as refugees. Some time later, Tadzhibayev’s mother came and took him to Termez.
There they sent him to a Russian-speaking class, even though he didn’t really know the language. He also became a regular at the local mosque. Moreover, he was assigned a special passport granting him citizenship in both the USSR and China, and (because he had an uncle who ran a profitable cattle business in Turkey) Tadzhibayev could afford to return to China occasionally and even went to Mecca twice. This was a rare privilege during Soviet times, and it’s no wonder that after Tadzhibayev’s first prison sentence, his passport was revoked.
Still, when he was hit by a train and went to heaven and hell, it only made sense that one of the first people he told was his mullah.
“Don’t tell anybody about this,” the cleric said after hearing his story. “They will beat you with stones.”
This was quite a discouraging experience, and for a while afterwards religion lost some significance in Tadzhibayev’s life, as a result. He had more pressing matters to attend to anyway: his criminal career, the pleasures of life, and so on. (“When you drink vodka, there’s no time to pray,” he said.) Still, Islam was a part of his identity, and he was protective about it. When, in the mid-1970s, one of his coworkers at a fire station tried to talk to Tadzhibayev about the Bible and Jesus Christ, he grabbed a crowbar and launched himself at him, screaming: “You lousy Baptist, you’ll never convert me into your faith!”
Ten years later, that same man baptized Tadzhibayev, making him a member of the Pentecostal Church.
Today Ruzam Tadzhibayev lives with his family in Columbia, Missouri, in the United States. He is a wiry, sturdily built man of 67 whose facial expressions could easily win him the role of the Turkish folk trickster Nasreddin, and who almost always dresses as if he just came out of his garage. He arrived to the country over 20 years ago, and as exceptional as his life had been up to that point, in this case he was a part of a huge movement.
Tadzhibayev is just one of many Russian-speaking Pentecostals who fled the post-Soviet world to America in the early 1990s. Now their churches and communities are spread throughout the US: South Dakota, North Carolina, Washington—you name it. The largest community, in Sacramento, California, has members in the tens of thousands (most of whom are Evangelical Christians), and a Russian-language TV channel and newspapers that cater to this particular audience.
Sedalia, Missouri, can also boast some unusual attributes: as many as 15 percent of the population are Russian-speaking immigrants, which, some argue, makes it the most Slavic town in America, percentage-wise.
Pentecostalism, one of the most popular forms of evangelical Protestantism, started in the United States at the beginning of 20th century, with the Midwest being one of its many birthplaces. It was in Topeka, Kansas, that a man named Charles Fox Parham had a divine revelation in 1901. He spent the next four years traveling throughout Kansas and Missouri, sharing his experience and teaching his beliefs.
Pentecostalism, a spiritual movement focused on a direct personal experience of God and the Holy Spirit and on studying Bible as the source of all answers, soon spread across the US and even farther.
In 1910s, it arrived in Russia via Scandinavia; the first Russian Pentecostal community was created in St. Petersburg in 1913. However, it wasn’t until 1921, when the pastor Ivan Voronayev (who’d spent the previous decade living in the United States) founded a Pentecostal community in Odessa, that the movement became truly popular.
By the end of 1920s, there were more than 15,000 Pentecostals in Ukraine, which had already become a Soviet Republic. There’s no consensus among the scholars on why Pentecostalism turned out to be so appealing to the newly-formed Soviet Union. Maybe it was because the Pentecostal services were spectacular and dramatic. Perhaps it was because the Russian Orthodox Church was essentially destroyed as an institution, and there was a niche to be filled. Maybe because the Bolsheviks, while destroying the Church, simply neglected its competitors, in a way perceiving Pentecostals, Baptists, and others as their allies in the fight to collpase the religious power of Tsarist Russia.
This salutary neglect didn’t last, however. Soon after Stalin gained power over the country, the Union of Soviet Evangelical Christians, created by Voronayev in 1927, ceased to exist, his leaders were arrested and sent to the Gulag, and Pentecostalism (like nearly every other religious movement in the country) became illegal and went underground. After World War II, the Soviet government quietly reestablished a certain kind of religious freedom, but Pentecostals, unlike Baptists and Orthodox Christians, were never able to enjoy it and were still considered anti-communist fanatics. Moreover, it was under Khrushchev, one of the most liberal Soviet leaders, that officials launched a full-scale campaign against Pentecostals, introducing legislation that labeled the Pentecostals an illegal and “gruesome” sect. They even fabricated a criminal case against a Pentecostal pastor near Moscow, accusing him of trying to inspire a woman to kill her daughter to redeem her sins. The case got a lot of publicity (the Soviet press, as you might expect, didn’t try to be objective), and the pastor got a 10-year prison sentence.
For the most part, the life of Pentecostals in the Soviet Union was largely unbearable. If you wanted to be with God, you had to sacrifice a lot. That might be one of the reasons why the majority of Pentecostals were from the lower classes; blue-collar people and farmers—people already struggling—were simply less likely to mind the social demotion that accompanied Pentecostalism.
So when tens of thousands of Soviet Pentecostals started to flee to the US, it wasn’t just to reconnect with their spiritual roots.
Take Vladimir Dub, who is now a pastor in the Word of Life Pentecostal church in Sedalia. Once, back in Ukraine, several law enforcement agents came to his brother’s house to conduct a search, frightening his eight children. They were looking for the Bible.
Dub’s future wife was in her senior year at college when a school administrator told her that she had to renounce her religious beliefs, if she wanted to graduate. She dropped out.
Dub himself never even tried to go to college. He just learned how to weld and signed up for any job available.
Olga Nechitailo also lives and preaches in Missouri. In school, she was bullied for believing in God and refusing to become a member of the Pioneers (something like the USSR’s Girl Scouts). Her older sister was really good in English, but they didn’t accept her into college because of her religion. Her mother, a house painter, and her father, a chauffeur, were regularly forced to change jobs.
While the Soviet Union still existed, Pentecostals couldn’t just leave the country—it was extremely difficult to pull off. However, the country was huge and rather diverse. So when Olga’s brother Serguei, a prospective pastor, fell in love with a woman from Uzbekistan, he told his relatives after visiting the republic that they would be much better off if they moved. The Uzbek population was predominantly Muslim, and the officials weren’t so harsh about religion. They went for it.
As it happened, Serguei Nechitailo eventually became the man who baptized Ruzam Tadzhibayev. And Olga Nechitailo eventually became Olga Tadzhibayev, Ruzam’s fifth wife.
One day in 1986, Serguei Nechitailo was riding his motorbike in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, when the engine suddenly stalled. He asked for help at a nearby samosa stand. When he saw the man who worked there, Nechitailo suddenly recognized the same person who tried to beat him up for talking about Jesus ten years before.
“Hey, Ruzam,” he said. “Long time no see! How have you been?”
Well, that was a question to ponder. By that point, Tadzhibayev had been through a lot. He learned how to pickpocket masterfully, making a career of it, and went to prison three more times (after his underage indiscretion), and was made a “thief in law” (a kind of Soviet mobster). After seeing a fellow gang member rip the stomach out of a rival before being killed himself, he quit his lawless career and fled the city.
“I went home and told my mother, ‘If we don’t leave, I will go the same way,’” he recalled. He worked at a marble factory for some years, and was promoted to supply manager, and made a lot of money selling things illegally, and even became a member of the Communist Party: “When I picked pockets, they sent me to prison; when I stole millions, they provided me with security.”
He had been through four wives. The first helped him learn Russian in high school. The third was incredibly jealous and persistent; when he tried to leave her and went to work in another city without saying a word, she found him and told him that she would have dug him up, if he’d been six feet under. He barely remembers the names of the other two, but he does remember that he had a lot of alimony payments. So there was all that, plus he drank and smoked marijauna profusely and could hardly speak a sentence without swearing.
Tadzhibayev shrugged and said to Nechitailo: “Oh, I’ve been okay. Drinking a lot. Not having much of a life.”
The pastor asked him to help with the motorcycle and mentioned in passing that Tadzhibayev should come to their “gathering.” He didn’t dare to use the word “service.” He vividly remembered the crowbar. However, Tadzhibayev agreed, mainly for two reasons. First: Nechitailo told him that there was another Uzbek in his congregation. Since Tadzhibayev thought Pentecostals were a kind of ethnicity, this was surprising news, and he wanted to know more and possibly to cut this guy’s ears off, if he really had betrayed Islam. (Figuratively speaking. Perhaps.)
Second: there was a rumor. A rumor said that at some point during a Pentecostal service they turn the light off, and then an orgy starts, and you can do whatever you want with whomever you manage to catch. (As crazy as it may sound, it was an actual urban legend about Pentecostals that was spread by anti-sectarian state propaganda, along with stories about ritual infanticide.) Tadzhibayev was interested.
There was no orgy. And no fellow Uzbek, either. In fact, pretty soon Nechitailo started using Tadzhibayev himself as a kind of poster boy, taking him to services in different towns, talking to him out in the open, showing the local population that people like them could find Jesus, too. By that point, though, Tadzhibayev was alright with it. Because at the very first service, the strangest thing happened.
When they knelt to pray for the first time, Tadzhibayev didn’t budge: he was an outsider. Why should he follow their rules? When they knelt for the second time, he still didn’t move. When it happened for the third time, he felt it would be impolite not to kneel. And then an old man next to him put his trembling hand on Tadzhibayev’s head and said something like: “Oh, God, look how dark and beaten up this man is, set him free and give him wisdom.” Tadzhibayev was amused and confused. Who did this fellow think he was? A psychic of some kind? But the service was over, so Tadzhibayev told Nechitailo that he found his congregation surprisingly cultured (they didn’t swear) and left.
The next day, he went to perform his daily ritual: downing a glass of vodka before cooking samosa at his restaurant. But there wasn’t any vodka: last night, his co-worker said, a group of firefighters came in, and he had to sell them the whole stash. It was too early to find an open liquor store, so Tadzhibayev returned home, but there wasn’t any vodka there, either. There, his mother demanded that he tend to some urgent gardening chores. And then something else distracted him. And then something else.
Before he knew it, he hadn’t touched alcohol in three days. When he finally got the chance to visit one of his usual bars, he turned away feeling repulsed. Whatever the old man had said, it worked. So Tadzhibayev went to another Pentecostal service. And another. And another. And eventually Nechitailo baptized him in water.
In a way, Tadzhibayev’s reformation reflected the social disruption of Perestroika. “At the time, everything around me felt like a lie. Total havoc, empty stores, everybody looking for how to take advantage of someone else. And there was a completely different way of life,” Tadzhibayev explained. “Besides, I was sick and tired of my previous wives, so I had an idea: why don’t I try to marry a Christian?”
By the time Tadzhibayev was baptized, Olga Nechitailo had been praying for a new husband for months (the first one left, leaving her to raise two children alone). Recently she’d had a dream. In the dream, she was sitting under a grape vine, holding a newborn daughter, and then a voice spoke to her, saying: “You will soon marry a non-Russian darkie guy.” When she saw him several days later trying to catch a taxi after a service, the voice spoke again and said: “Here’s the man.”
Olga wasn’t too enthusiastic about the fact that her presumable husband was an Uzbek, but, obviously, she didn’t have much authority in this particular situation. So when Tadzhibayev offered to give her a ride, she agreed. Three month later, they got married and have been together ever since.
Tadzhibayev continued to go to services. At first he didn’t dare to speak up because of the swearing. Gradually he grew able to talk without cursing and and he started sharing his experiences reading the Bible. And then, another strange thing happen. A famous Finnish pastor came to Uzbekistan on a visit, and put his hand on Tadzhibayev’s head, and the words just started coming out of his mouth. He didn’t know what these words meant or how to stop them. Even after the service, while on his way home, he kept talking to Olga in a language they both didn’t know.
That was how Ruzam Tadzhibayev first spoke in tongues and was baptized with the Holy Spirit.
It goes like this:
“Thank you, as all of us are in your hands. You’re our heavenly daddy,” dramatically exclaims Tadzhibayev, who is standing on the stage at the First Nazarene Church in Columbia, which the local Pentecostal congregation rents twice a week. And then he says: “Shcheck mala kala mallala tala balala. Glory to God.”
“Thank you, God, for our peace, and for the love that you show us today,” mutters brother Pavel, a big balding man in a green flannel suit that would look appropriate on a Soviet bureaucrat, who comes to Columbia from Sedalia twice a week to preach. And then he says: “Per balam meregher de sharabaram oh dest, oh reghimenour reghinegher sharabaram o dest.”
“Hallelujah, o Father,” dolefully, almost weeping, says brother Yakov, who drove to Missouri for 9 hours from his hometown in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to visit his congregation. And then he says, “Lalala skiri tebe para, rvany cheday keredeti skiri, hallelujah kredere.”
It may sound like gibberish, but for Pentecostals, it isn’t. In fact, it’s one of the most important events in your spiritual life, because that’s how God speaks through you. In fact, even the name of the Pentecostal church is directly related to the experience of speaking in tongues: it refers to the event that happened on the fiftieth day after the resurrection, when, according to the New Testament, the Holy Spirit descended on disciples of Christ, who “began to speak in other languages.” For Pentecostals, this is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, and when you experience it, it means that you fully embrace God.
Linguists and anthropologists term this phenomenon “glossolalia,” and they have studied it extensively. In general, glossolalia is what you might call a pseudo-language, meaning that it imitates the structures of real human communication without actually producing any discernible meaning. It is also a public thing. According to Aleksandr Panchenko, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg who has been studying the history and culture of Russian-speaking Pentecostals for decades, a service is like sacred theatre for Pentecostals, where glossolalia is the ultimate performance.
Apparently, these performances defy explanation. “It’s a lot of joy,” Tadzhibayev says. Brother Pavel tries to elaborate with a peculiar analogy. “You know when you’re at a soccer game, and your favorite team scores?” he asks. “What do people do? They even put out cigarette butts on each other’s heads! And nobody takes offense. And nobody can really tell you how he feels at that moment. It’s the same thing here. Even more so, since we’re talking about saving our souls and the presence of God in the human being. You can understand it only if you’ve experienced it.”
Glossolalia, which is a controversial practice even among Evangelical Christians (Baptists, for one, don’t accept it), was one of the main reasons for the demonization of Pentecostals in the Soviet Union. If these weird people are speaking this scary gibberish, the reasoning was, why wouldn’t they kill a child? And speaking in tongues can sometimes be scary and awkward, indeed, provoking strange convulsions (one of the reasons Soviet Pentecostals were mocked as “shakers” in the 1920s), or, as in a particular tradition called “Toronto Blessing,” hysterical laughter, crying, roaring, and falling to the ground “under the power of the Spirit.” In the case of the Missourian Pentecostals, however, glossolalia looks pretty casual. They speak in tongues for a couple of sentences and then return to an ordinary prayer. It’s almost like saying “hi” to a familiar passer-by before returning to a conversation.
It makes sense, of course, as Pentecostalism is all about direct communication with God, who is omnipresent anyway, and can reveal himself to a humble servant in the most casual situations. And His servants are happy to share the evidence to prove it.
Once, when Vladimir Dub was in California having a conversation with friends, one of his companions suddenly left the room without saying anything. He later explained that he had an acute feeling that he needed to pray for his children. It turns out that—at that very moment—his children had suddenly noticed that the family’s house was on fire, and they were able to put out the flames.
Shortly after the Tadzhibayev family arrived to the US, the doctors diagnosed Olga with uterine cancer and scheduled a surgery that would have left her infertile. She started to pray ferociously. When she came by a hospital for a check-up before the surgery, they looked at her tests and discovered that the cancer was gone. Two months later, at the age of 41, she turned out to be pregnant, and later gave birth to a perfectly healthy baby girl.
In 2001, Olga’s son Sasha, who frequently gets into trouble, was arrested on a drug charge. Police threw him in jail with four other foreigners and threatened deportation. Sasha told his cellmates that they should pray to God, but one of them refused. Then 9/11 happened, and their trials were delayed. Then a judge told Sasha, “Find yourself a sponsor, and you can stay.” The only one to be deported was the man who refused to pray.
Once Ruzam Tadzhibayev was looking for a rope to use with a ladder and couldn’t find it anywhere. He got angry and said, “Let the one who took it away break his leg.” When he finally started climbing the ladder, he fell down and broke his own leg. On his way to a doctor in the back of a car, he asked God, “What happened? What have I done to deserve this pain?” Right there, in the back of a car, God replied to him, “Ruzam, you brought it upon yourself. It was you who took the rope away, don’t you remember?” So they had a small talk, and then the pain went away, and God helped Tadzhibayev recover, he says.
Signs from God can come in any life situation. In the beginning of the 1990s, He signaled to his flock, they say, that they should leave the disintegrating Soviet Union.
When the Tadzhibayev family came to America, they had only 25 cents to their name.
It wasn’t because they were poor that they left Uzbekistan. Quite the opposite. Ruzam Tadzhibayev always knew how to make money, and when free enterprise became legal in the Soviet Union in the late 80s, together with his family he opened a private waffle cake company that turned out to be quite profitable. They had two houses and three cars—a fortune, by Soviet standards.
There were other problems, though. His neighbors were envious. Tadzhibayev’s mother never accepted that he had converted to another religion. She went as far as trying to poison his wife (several times) and even attempted to put Ruzam, her own son, in prison. It wasn’t until Olga and he staged a scene pretending that he would burn down the house down if she didn’t give up that she finally relent. On top of all this, Wahhabism, a rather extreme form of Islam, started to grow stronger in Uzbekistan. Before that, Tadzhibayev could go to the mosque and have a cultured discussion about the Koran, the Bible, and Jesus. When the Wahhabis came, being a Pentecostal became dangerous.
So the Tadzhibayevs left behind everything they had, giving all their belongings to the church and to people in need, putting their hope in God and emigrating to the United States as religious refugees.
The first thing that astonished them in America were the public restrooms. They were so clean! And the toilet bowls—they had water in them, were they all broken?! (In the Soviet Union, the water came down into the bowl only when you flushed.)
Their amazement didn’t stop at the bathrooms. The supermarkets: how huge they were! How much food Americans put in their shopping carts! How would they be able to eat it all? Other quite small things astounded them, too, like nail guns (back home, there were just hammers and nails), and so on.
The Tadzhibayevs first went to Sacramento, where by 1994 a huge Russian-speaking Evangelical community already existed and had an infrastructure in place to help newcomers. The government gave them a one-time allowance of $900, and they spent the majority of the money to buy their first car. The community set them up with an apartment, which was in a predominantly black neighborhood. “It was deadly quiet during the day, but come night time, and there were screams, shots fired, and naked women in the street. We saw that and decided to get out,” Olga Tadhzibayev recalled.
They relocated to Vancouver, Washington, where Olga’s sister lived in another big Pentecostal community. Because neither one of them knew any English, for the first eight months they had to survive on food stamps. Every other day, they would pick through the dumpster behind a local supermarket for expired, discarded food—much of it still edible. Sometimes they picked up things that Americans left at the entrance to Goodwill. It was hard, but manageable.
Once they learned some English, they started working. Olga’s first job was moving new Subarus from the Vancouver port to car dealerships. (“I good dog,” she used to tell her coworkers.) Then she founded a private nursing home and tended to elderly people during the day, providing cleaning services for local restaurants at night. Ruzam Tadzhibayev worked as a carpenter by day, and attended car auctions each night, to buy abandoned vehicles that he would repair in his spare time and flip for a higher price.
Inch by inch, they managed to get back on their feet and even start saving money. But the Tadzhibayevs didn’t care for Vancouver. The city was too big. The weather was too cold. Besides, there were drugs everywhere; Olga’s son ran with a bad crowd and was eventually arrested on drug charges. They didn’t want it to happen to the other children. When, in the early the 2000s, they learned that some of their congregation were moving to Sedalia, Missouri, where you could buy a piece of land for cheap and find a job easily, they decided to join them.
On April 5, about five hundred people gathered for the Easter service at the Word of Life church that stands in an open field next to a school bus parking lot on the southern outskirts of Sedalia.
They wore their Sunday best: suits and ties for the men, stylish but modest dresses for the women. A choir of several dozen singers in blue robes stood at the center of a big stage. Vladimir Dub came up to the podium and preached the glory of God. Every time he said, “Christ is risen!” everybody stood up and answered, “Truly arisen.” Then they knelt and prayed out loud, every Pentecostal addressing God with their own words, creating a great cacophony.
Then a ceremonial melody, strangely reminiscent of music from Star Wars, began to play, and the choir sang, “Everyone has sinned, and sacrificing goats couldn’t wash their sins off. For every sin there must be death. For every sin there must be death.” The song went on to explain the idea of Christian redemption and lasted for about nine minutes. The service carried on in this fashion (a sermon, a prayer, a song) for another three hours. At the end, the priest asked for contributions. A woman in the pew in front of me wrote a check for $100. Her husband looked at it, shook his head, tore the check apart and wrote another one for $150.
For an outsider, a Pentecostal service feels almost like a concert, which is not surprising, considering how important singing is to the Protestant culture, in general, and how performatory Pentecostal religious practices are. The Easter service, moreover, was a very special occasion, and it felt almost like a music festival. There was a chamber orchestra comprised of middle-school students who played softly, if a little out of tune, a pastoral melody. There was a rock band with drums, a bass, a guitar, and keyboards. One man jammed on an acoustic guitar with exceptional passion. There was also a choir of 70 children no older than eight, most of whom visibly struggled to sing or speak in Russian. They were born here, and this was their second language—something they probably only heard at home from their parents or here at church.
As numerous as it is, the congregation of the Word of Life church doesn’t constitute even a half of Sedalia’s Pentecostal community. The first Russians arrived here as early as in 1997—they say that a couple went on a honeymoon trip through America and stumbled upon a nice city with cheap land. Nobody explains how the honeymooners ended up in central Missouri. (When asked to share his story, the man identified as the community’s first settler mumbles that he “wasn’t born for interviews” and leaves the room.)
When Vladimir Dub arrived here in 1999 from Bellingham, Washington, sixty of his flock were waiting with a church already operating. “Back in Bellingham, we lived in apartments. My children were running on the streets with Mexicans and that kind of people. Here I was able to buy my own house,” he explained. “It was all for the family.”
Gradually more and more Pentecostals started coming to Sedalia. Relatives told relatives, and friends invited friends. Today, there are as many as 3,000 Russian-speaking Pentecostals in the city, working, preaching, and raising their kids. Apparently, the most popular job among the older generation is driving trucks, as you can make good money without speaking much English. (Indeed, a special prayer often goes out for the safety of the truck drivers.)
The community’s children go to the same schools as the other Americans, but they don’t mingle with them very much. According to a recent high school graduate from Sedalia, there are plenty of Russians, but they don’t really hang out with locals or date them. “Our youth centers its activities around the church,” Vladimir Dub said.
There are seven Pentecostal churches in Sedalia, and immigrants from different regions tend to hang on to each other and establish a separate place to pray together. In the Word of Life church, the majority of the flock are Ukrainians from the eastern part of the country. At this particular moment in history, their origins are not without certain political implications.
When people in the church learn that the photographer accompanying me is from Kiev, they ask him, “Are you from Maidan?” They’re joking, of course, but they definitely don’t mean it as a compliment.
Vladimir Dub was born in Krasnogolovka, a small city in the Donetsk region that is on the front line of the conflict today between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian rebels. He and his wife later lived in Makeyevka, another small city in the same area. Recently, Dub learned that their old house there was destroyed in the war. When Olga Tadzhibayev was young, her family lived for some time in Kramatorsk, a city that witnessed a tense three-month standoff last spring.
And as much as Olga and Ruzam Tadzhibayev condemn the violence that has consumed much of eastern Ukraine, they also say they know who’s to blame: bandera.
For the Tadzhibayevs, “bandera”—the surname of an extremely controversial Ukrainian nationalist who, trying to fight for the independence of his country, allied with the Nazis during the World War II—is simply a common noun. It refers to all the Ukrainians from the country’s western regions who, in Olga Tadzhibayev’s eyes, are inherently envious, slanderous, and can’t leave their sins behind, even if they believe in God. If, for instance, a bandera lives next to you and his children are not as smart or well behaved as yours, he will try to spoil them.
Recently the Tadzhibayevs visited a Pentecostal family in North Carolina. The husband was originally from Russia, and the wife and her family were from Lviv, which is widely regarded as the capital of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism. At some point, according to Tadzhibayev, the North Carolina family’s son, who often stayed with his grandparents on the mother’s side, entered the room, raised his right in a Nazi salute, and said, “Glory to Ukraine! Death to Moskals!” (using a popular epithet for Russians).
That North Carolina couple is reportedly divorcing now. It’s all bandera’s fault.
That said, the Tadzhibayevs’ ideas about politics are peculiar, in general. For example, they believe that all of modern human history is contained in the Bible. They believe it because they watched Understanding the Endtime, a video course by Pentecostal minister Irvin Baxter, Jr., spanning 14 DVDs. A corpulent man who looks like a corporate executive, Baxter talks like he’s making a business pitch. In one scene, he cites a newspaper op-ed in the Indianapolis Star and the magazine covers of Time and The Economist as evidence of a Biblical prophecy that the Antichrist will emerge from the European Union and the United Nations to create a new global world order that will herald the forthcoming reign of Satan. (Baxter might be one of the few people on this planet—and certainly one of the last Americans—who fears the power of the UN.)
The ninth DVD is actually called The Secret Pact Between Gorbachev and the Vatican.
It’s not as though all Pentecostals share the same beliefs, however. When asked about the prophecies, Vladimir Dub cautiously says there are all kinds of interpretations. He firmly states that, as Christians, Pentecostals don’t take sides in the Ukrainian war and says they all pray that God will end the violence. He says they don’t have any conflicts with other denominations, and everyone chooses how to serve God in their own way. He thinks the US is a great country built on Biblical principles (including the freedom from taxation for religious institutions), but he says he as a church representative does have a problem with gay marriage, which he brings up unprovoked, leading to a heated rant that perhaps sheds some light on what attracted his people to the Midwest in the first place.
“We can only observe these negative developments in American life right now with concern. I’m talking about the legalization of gay marriage. It’s outrageous for the whole Christian world!” Dub exclaims. “We protest. We tell everybody that it’s a sin. Their orientation is wrong. You can’t allow the sin to spread, because its ultimate goal is destructive. And a lot of people worry—how can it be that these kinds of laws are passed on the West Coast? Will this part of the country thrive if it legalizes the sin of Sodom? They worry, and they think, maybe I should move to Missouri, where this question is off the table for now?”
Several years ago, the Tadzhibayev family moved 70 miles northeast, from Sedalia to Columbia, where they found a cheap house for sale near three colleges they hoped their daughters might attend. In Columbia, Olga Tadzhibayev opened a private daycare on the ground floor of their house, and Ruzam went to work for a used-car repair shop.
He has since retired, but he still has a lot on his plate. He built a Russian bath house on his property and plans to build a proper auto garage. One of his neighbors doesn’t really like him and reports any activity on his property to the local authorities, so Tadzhibayev has been building a fence around his land, making his the only enclosed house in the whole neighborhood. He also grows grapes, spring onions, and other greens (his vegetable garden is also the only one in the neighborhood). He still buys broken cars at auctions to refurbish and resell. In fact, cars seem to be one of the few things that still truly excites Tadzhibayev.
When he and his oldest step-son Piotr, a large red-faced truck driver, go to the bath house one Friday, they talk about cars, repairs, and spare parts for more than an hour. Then the topic shifts to something more political, when Tadzhibayev declares that there are six Russian military submarines circling in the ocean around America, and if they launch their missiles, the US will be gone in a heartbeat.
For most Russian-speaking Pentecostals in America, religion has always been an inherent part of their lives. Ruzam Tadzhibayev is different, and it takes some effort to try to understand why he has embraced Jesus in this particular way. He definitely believes in God. He goes to all the services and helps the church. He prays before every meal. (“There are so many chemicals in American food that you have to ask God for mercy,” Olga says.) Yet, if he is anything, Ruzam Tadzhibayev is a business-minded man—a mindset that’s helped him to establish a life for himself and his family in America. He approaches all of his opportunities with pragmatism, so one can’t help but wonder about his religion: what’s in it for him?
As we drive home from a service, Tadzhibayev tells me he was asked this question once before. Newly Pentecostal and still living in Tashkent, he caught a taxi one day that turned out to be driven by an old coworker. They exchanged pleasantries, and Tadzhibayev started raving enthusiastically about the church.
“Wait,” the driver said. “What’s the profit? Are they paying you or what?”
“Well, look,” Tadzhibayev replied. “If I live here the right way—if I don’t drink and don’t smoke—it’s good for my health. I don’t swear, and therefore I get more respect from people. Then, God makes me a privileged man. And on top of all that, in the end, I don’t have to go to hell. And, you know, I saw hell. It’s real.”
Tadzhibayev turns the wheel of his red Nissan Altima (which he bought for $1,300, and is now selling for $11,000), and says smiling, “If you ask me, that’s a decent profit.”